The Royals’ offense has sputtered out of the gate this season, and earlier this week it cost hitting coach Terry Bradshaw his job. Alec Zumwalt takes over as hitting coach for this season, moving over from his role as Senior Director for Player Development and Hitting Performance, with Mike Tosar also joining the staff. The Royals have scored the fifth-fewest runs-per-game in the league with the fourth-lowest OPS and the third-fewest home runs. In 20 of their 36 games they have failed to score as many as four runs, and they have been shut out five times already this season.
One of the major points emphasized as a reason for the change at hitting coaches was the inability to score runners from third base. Dayton Moore talked a bit about the issues with reporters this week.
“There are times in a baseball game where it’s unacceptable to strike out — runner on second with no outs, runner on third with one out or less. Those are times where we gotta be able to put the ball in play.”
The inability to score a runner from third has been a glaring issue in the first weeks of the season. Despite having the sixth-lowest strikeout rate in baseball (it was the lowest earlier this week), the Royals have a higher strikeout rate with a runner at third and less than two outs.
Runner on third, less than two outs
The Royals probably best exemplified this issue in the first game of the doubleheader on Tuesday, when they stranded a runner at third four times in one game. The offensive impotence has caused the team to press a bit, being overly aggressive to try to score on infield groundouts with the “contact play” and one of the worst sends by third base coach Vance Wilson this year on a play on Tuesday.
May 17, 2022
Sam McDowell wrote a bit about what the organization sees as the problem and what they are trying to do.
Runner on third, less than two outs
In a conversation with someone within the organization this week, they actually pointed toward the team’s low strikeout totals overall as a reason they needed to alter their approach, not as a point of pride. They chase too often, and a team that combines chasing bad pitches with a high-contact rate is not one that tends to get a lot of hits. That’s what leads to weak contact.
But in other situations? Like, say, runners in scoring position and fewer than two outs? Good hitters adjust.
Those in-game adjustments — the situational adjustments — have been absent. Again, hence the coaching change.
Are adjustments possible? I mean, I know hitters can adjust their approach, but to a certain extent, they are what they are. If you look at the teams that are good in “runner at third, less than two outs” situations, they are teams that are generally pretty good offensively in general - the Yankees, Dodgers, and Angels. As Edward Sutelan at Fangraphs wrote in 2014:
While by no means is it an overwhelmingly strong coefficient of determination in any of the cases, in most cases the strength of an offense determines at least 50% of hitting with runners in scoring position which is good enough to at the very least say that better offensive teams are more likely to hit better with runners in scoring position than weak offensive teams.
But in the early data this year, there are examples of teams outperforming their regular hitting with a runner at third and less than two outs. The team that has been the best at scoring runs in those situations is the Texas Rangers, with 0.82 runs-per-PA, while overall they have a below-average OPS. The Rangers have the lowest strikeout rate out of any team with a runner at third and less than two outs, and are hitting .400/.407/.575 as a team in those situations. The Rays have also been good in these situations both last year and this year, despite having a fairly average offense otherwise.
An improvement could make a significant difference too. The runner at third, less than two outs situations comprise 6 percent of total plate appearances for the Royals. If the Royals matched Texas’ runs-per-PA production, that’s an additional 23 runs, enough to put them at seventh-best in the American League, above league average.
On the other hand, this could be small sample noise. The Royals have had a funk early in the year and could improve as the weather warms up and the ball bounces their way. There are still bigger issues at play like the team walk rate (7.7%, 24th in baseball) and line drive rate (17.7%, 28th in baseball).
Perhaps Zumwalt can help with all of these issues. Alec Lewis wrote about his offensive approach this week for The Athletic, summarizing it as this:
All of it emerged from three simple mantras provided by the coaches: (1.) Know thyself (as a hitter), (2.) swing at the pitches you can hit hard and take the ones you can’t and (3.) be elite in your preparation.
It is unreasonable to expect that Zumwalt will be able to change the approach of a lineup filled with over 30-year olds overnight. But hopefully his guidance can assist the young hitters on this team, whether it is for situational hitting or not.